Olivier Schneider, a knight on a bike
President of the French bicycle users federation, Olivier Schneider played a key role in the bicycle plan launched by the French government.
Like all good swashbuckling heroes, Olivier Schneider has a secret weapon. It’s a fold-up bicycle that he takes everywhere, from French government offices and Parliament to conferences and symposiums. “I see it as my business card. If you want to make an impression, you have to stand out. It’s part of my personality,” he laughs, the picture of a knight on a bike. With a youthful face partially hidden under three-day stubble and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, 36-year-old Olivier Schneider is a sustainable mobility advisor for the United Nations and has been president of the French bicycle users federation (FUB) for three and a half years. Founded in 1980, it heads up a network of 292 local non-profits that promote cycling as an accessible, cheap and under-used means of day-to-day transport. The federation’s active campaigning played a significant role in the introduction of France’s bicycle plan on 14 September, with the French government actually taking up all its proposals.
A €350 million bicycle plan
With the creation of a €350 million fund over seven years (€50 million per year) for infrastructure, the interdepartmental plan is “a turning point because it’s the first time a budget has ever been set aside. Previous plans were just lists of intentions.” In particular, the plan provides for the creation of a fixed-rate bicycle allowance of up to €400 paid by employers, measures to prevent theft and resale, and the development of a cycling culture, with regular lessons for primary school children. “That’s the most important part,” says Olivier, who now lives in Brest with his two teenage children and his visually impaired wife, who often travels with him on his cargo bike. “If we can get everyone to see that, then the battle’s won. We need to convince parents that cycling can improve their children’s health, employers that it leads to 15% less sick leave, and employees that they can increase their purchasing power.”
Campaigning that paid off
To win this battle, Olivier Schneider devoted himself to it “seven days a week for two years”, leaving no stone unturned. And his hard work paid off. “We speak on behalf of French citizens by making concrete recommendations for solving a whole range of societal problems.” The message is clearly getting through, with a recent Parlons-Vélo (“Let’s Talk Bikes”) survey by the FUB revealing that 80% of French people want there to be more space for cyclists in cities. As it stands, only 2.7% of journeys during the week are made by bike.
Since the French Finance Ministry was reluctant to set aside a cycling budget, the FUB upped the ante, sending 100,000 postcards to the French President, Prime Minister, members of Parliament and the Senate, and more. As a spokesperson for bike lovers, Olivier Schneider says he plays “the same game as lobbyists. Except that I refuse to lie, and I believe that I act in the public interest.” He clearly has a flair for negotiating, persuading and navigating power dynamics, no doubt inherited from his parents, who were civil servants working for embassy culture departments.
A passion for cycling
Campaigning for cycling wasn’t always an obvious choice for Olivier, a polyglot originally from Poland. But one day, when he was a student at Telecom Bretagne engineering school in Brest, his car broke down. The cost of repairs came to €2,000. So Olivier began cycling instead. But, being asthmatic, he found it tough, and decided to invest in an electric bike. “It was an affordable, logical solution. And I also realised that my asthma got worse when I wasn’t cycling. I started to really enjoy it and thought that everyone should know about the benefits.” In 2009, he started campaigning for the Brest à Pied et à Vélo (“Brest on Foot and by Bike”) non-profit organisation, as well as joining the FUB before being elected its president in 2015.
And he has no intention of losing momentum any time soon. The 2020 municipal elections are the next milestone for him: “My aim is for cycling to be an election topic. I bet that the candidates will try to outdo each other in making bicycles accessible for everyone – and not just in cities. I think there are some surprises in store,” says the cycling enthusiast, always ready to take on a new challenge.